Beauty and the beasts
During an August vacation with my family, I enjoyed lodgings so spectacular that not even Bill Gates or Warren Buffett could ever buy or rent them.
The scenery was some of America’s finest: snowcapped mountains, alpine lakes, babbling brooks. The cost? It was free.
We were enjoying some of America’s public lands, backpacking through our national patrimony. No billionaire can acquire these lands because they remain — even in a nation where economic disparities have soared — a rare democratic space. The only one who could pull rank on you at a camping spot is a grizzly bear.
“This is the most beautiful place in the world,” my 15-year-old daughter mused beside a turquoise lake framed by towering fir trees. She and I were hiking 200-plus miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, joined for shorter bits by my wife and sons.
We imbibed from glacier-fed creeks, startled elk and dallied beside alpine meadows so dazzling that they constitute an argument for the existence of God. At night, if rain didn’t threaten, we spread our sleeping bags under the open sky — miles from any other human — and fell asleep counting shooting stars.
You want to understand the concept of a “public good”? It’s exemplified by our nation’s wilderness trails.
In some ways, this wilderness is thriving. Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book “Wild,” about her long backpack on the Pacific Crest Trail, has inspired hordes of young women to try the trails. Reese Witherspoon is starring in a movie of “Wild,” made by her production company, and that will undoubtedly send even more out to feed the mosquitoes.
The talk of the trail this year was of a woman named Heather Anderson who shattered a record by backpacking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, without support, in 61 days. That’s nearly 44 miles a day over tough terrain. She says she graduated from high school at 200 pounds and found purpose — and lost 70 pounds — on the trails. On this trek, she had encounters with five rattlesnakes, eight bears and four mountain lions. (For more on Heather Anderson’s extraordinary journey, visit my blog at kristof.blogs.nytimes.com.)
Yet America’s public goods, from our parks to “Sesame Street,” are besieged today by budget-cutters, and it’s painful to hike some trails now. You see lovingly constructed old bridges that have collapsed. Trails disturbed by avalanches have not been rebuilt, and signs are missing.
“Infrastructure is really crumbling,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, herself a backpacker, told me. She notes that foreign tourists come to visit America’s “crown jewels” like Yosemite and are staggered by the beauty — and flummoxed by the broken toilets.
It’s even worse at the U.S. Forest Service, which is starved of funds partly because firefighting is eating up its budgets. The Forest Service has estimated that only one-quarter of its 158,000 miles of trails meet its own standards.
About once a year, my family hikes the spectacular Timberline Trail, constructed in the Great Depression around Mount Hood in Oregon as a public works project. But one section washed out in 2006, and it still hasn’t officially reopened.
What our ancestors were able to create when we were a poor country, we are unable to sustain even now that we are rich. That’s not because of resources. It’s because they were visionaries, and we are blind.
Wallace Stegner called our national parks America’s “best idea.” The sequester, which I would call “America’s worst idea,” was supposed to save money, but when sloping trails aren’t maintained every year or two, they erode and require major repairs that cost even more.
Republicans praise the idea of citizen volunteers and public-private partnerships. But our agencies are so impoverished that they can’t take full advantage of charity.
Mike Dawson of the Pacific Crest Trail Association says that volunteers could provide about 250,000 hours repairing the trail each year. But the Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to organize and equip all the volunteers available, so it will be able to use only one-third of that free labor this year, he says. That’s crazy.
All this is symptomatic of a deeper disdain in some circles for the very idea of a public good: Who needs a national forest? Just buy your own Wyoming ranch!
This fall will probably see a no-holds-barred battle in Washington over fiscal issues, and especially the debt limit. But, in a larger sense, it’s a dispute over public goods. So, considering how ineffective Congress is, perhaps we should encourage all 535 members to take a sabbatical and backpack the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m not sure we’d miss them for five months. And what an entertaining reality show that would make!
It would also have a serious side. Maybe when dwarfed by giant redwoods, recalcitrant politicians would absorb a lesson of nature: We are all part of something larger than ourselves. Perhaps they would gain perspective and appreciate the grandeur of our public lands of which they are such wretched stewards.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.